Odd Pair: Fish and Red Wine
Whenever I am faced with a conundrum like the age-old question of whether or not it is imperative to pair white wine exclusively with fish, I look to antiquity. Indeed, in more cases than not, the ancients were much wiser and more well informed than we are.
And as I pore over (excuse the pun) centuries-old manuscripts and vellum-bound tomes, I discover that -- lo and behold -- the ancients did not have this problem because wine was predominantly white or rosé (at its darkest) in the days of yore. That is to say, even when wines were made from red grapes (a phenomenon that didn't begin to emerge until much later in human evolution), they were generally lighter in color, had a lower alcohol content, and were much less tannic.
Having established that the conundrum is essentially a product of modernity and its trappings, I then look to the contemporary sages.
Eric Asimov of The New York Times embraces conventional wisdom. Some may assert, he wrote a few years ago, that the "red wine with meat, white with fish is an archaic rule." In fact, he observes, "It's really not such a bad guideline." But he leaves us with the following kernel of sapience: "The bottom line: Matching food and wine is not sweat-worthy."
On the other side of that great misunderstanding otherwise known as the Atlantic Ocean, British Master of Wine Jancis Robinson takes a more technical approach, noting that we should "Try to match a wine's body to the power of the strongest ingredient in the food. Serve delicate-flavoured foods such as simple white fish or poached chicken with lighter bodied wines and stronger, more robust foods such as grilled tuna with spiced lentils or osso buco with full-bodied wines. Many white wines will do jobs which are conventionally regarded as red wine jobs, and vice versa."
While Jancis and Eric share a common-sense approach to the issue, it's clear that there's plenty of wiggle room when it comes to pairing fish with red wine.
While I agree with Eric that the white with fish, red wine with meat rule is a good rule-of-thumb, I believe that Jancis is spot on when she points out that we need to consider the body of the wine (not the color) when pairing. Oily tuna steaks? I happily reach for some Cerasuolo di Vittoria from the southeastern tip of Sicily. Rich grouper or meaty swordfish? Give me some Cabernet Franc from Loire with bell pepper aromas and bright acidity. Steamed mussels and slightly chilled Pinot Noir from Oregon? As soon as we cast off the yoke of the bourgeois aphorism, a technicolor world of flavor invites us in and offers us a seat at the table.
The bottom line? As the American bard Sheryl Crow once observed, if it makes you happy, it can't be that bad...
Get the Dining Newsletter
The week's top local food news and events, plus interviews with chefs and restaurant owners, dining tips, and a peek at our print review.